INDIA: Union Carbide’s Bhopal site still contaminated 15 years on

The site around the former Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India - where one of the world's worst industrial disasters took place 15 years ago - is still highly contaminated by toxic chemicals, according to a Greenpeace report.

The report,The Bhopal Legacy, shows that the factory site is still contaminated by chemicals such as mercury and organochlorines. Some of the organochlorines found in groundwater supplying the neighbouring communities are known to have been used at the plant during its routine operations. The levels of mercury found in a sample taken in May 1999 from a location within the factory, were between 20,000 and six million times higher than background levels which would be expected in uncontaminated soils.

The Union Carbide factory was closed on December 3 1984 after a leak of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas from the pesticide factory led to the deaths of thousands of local people. The state government of Madhya Pradesh reported that approximately 3,800 persons died, 40 persons were left with permanent total disability, and 2,680 persons were left with permanent partial disability.

Environmentalists believe many Bhopal survivors have died as a result of environmental contamination in the ensuing years. According to a survivor’s organization, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), 10 to 15 people die every month from exposure related complications. Greenpeace says the current death toll is well over 16,000 with over 500,000 injuries.

An official investigation found that the gas was formed when a disgruntled plant employee, apparently bent on spoiling a batch of methyl isocyanate, added water to a storage tank. The water caused a reaction that built up heat and pressure in the tank, creating a lethal gas. Environmentalists and other protest groups dispute this, blaming corporate negligence.

“The results of the survey indicate severe contamination by toxic chemicals at a number of locations within the old plant. The extent and nature of toxic chemicals found in the groundwater indicate the need for immediate action to be taken to provide clean drinking water supplies for the local communities, and to prevent further releases of chemicals from the factory site itself,” said Greenpeace research scientist Ruth Stringer.

In the worst contaminated sample of groundwater taken from a handpump in Atal Ayub Nagar along the Northeast corner of the factory, concentrations of carbon tetrachloride, a suspect carcinogen, exceeded limits set by the World Health Organisation by 1,705 times. Chloroform in the same sample exceeded US EPA standards for drinking water by 260 times.

According to the report, the presence of the chlorinated chemicals in the well waters near the Carbide plant is “undoubtedly due to the long-term industrial contamination of the surrounding environment” by the Carbide factory.

The report concludes that consumption of water contaminated by the chemicals found in the study for long periods could cause significant health damage. “The contaminated condition of the Union Carbide site is a prime example of corporate irresponsibility and the inability or unwillingness of governments to rein in corporations at the costs of public safety and environmental health,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, Greenpeace’s Toxics campaigner in India. “The fact that Union Carbide has escaped without cleaning up the site exposes the gaping loophole in the legal and administrative infrastructure to ensure corporate responsibility. The international community needs to devise means of ensuring that there are no more Bhopals.”

Replying to Greenpeace’s allegations, Union Carbide said it has had no information regarding the Bhopal plant site since it sold its stock in Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) more than five years ago. A Union Carbide statement received by edie says that a 1990 analysis of 100 off-site wells carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) found no contamination associated with UCIL operations. Furthermore, the statement says, UCIL conducted tests in 1992 to determine whether contamination had migrated off-site into drinking water wells and this data confirmed the NEERI results.

Meanwhile, anti-globalisation protest group Corporate Watch has drawn links between the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle and the 15th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. “It is ironic because on the one hand, the corporate drive towards profits at the cost of worker and community health and safety led to the disaster at Bhopal. The WTO, for its part, promotes an economic model that may well lead to more Bhopals. It is a model designed and run by corporate interests which is eroding protections given to human rights, labour and the environment-protections which could help prevent further Bhopals.

Shareholders have approved the merger between Union Carbide Corporation and The Dow Chemical Company. The merger is expected to take place following completion of necessary regulatory reviews. “I am very excited about this opportunity for Union Carbide to join forces with Dow to create what we believe will be the world’s premier diversified chemical company,” said Union Carbide Chairman and CEO William Joyce. “With leading technologies and outstanding facilities and people, we believe the new Dow will offer even stronger long-term prospects for profitable growth and enhancing shareholder value, while also delivering enhanced value to customers and end-use consumers.”

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